SHEFFIELD United defender Neill Collins will be tasked with the toughest job on the pitch in tomorrow’s League One play-off final – trying to stop Jordan Rhodes from scoring.
Huddersfield Town striker Rhodes is the leading marksman in the country with 40 goals and has terrorised defenders all season.
But Collins is one of the few players to boast a 100 per cent success rate against the Scottish international and not only kept Rhodes quiet when the two sides met three months ago but also scored the winning goal.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the winner at Wembley but, yes, I would happily take that again,” he said. “Even as a defender, it’s always in the back of your mind that you might score the winner – but you are more focused on how to stop their players.
“Hopefully, we can do to Jordan what we did in the last game but he is a fantastic player who has had a fantastic season. If you score 40 goals, you are probably the best striker in the league, and 40 goals would suggest you are going to be tough to nail down.
“He’s a really good player and I am sure he will be playing at a high level soon – although maybe not for Huddersfield.”
Collins played for Scotland at both Under-21 and B level and was delighted when Oldham-born Rhodes opted to play for his native country.
Although born in Oldham, striker Rhodes qualifed for the Scots after spending five years as a schoolboy north of the border.
Both Rhodes and Blades winger Michael O’Halloran have been given permission to report late for duty with the Scotland Under-21s.
Billy Stark’s men are involved in a European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria on May 31 and the rest of their squad are meeting up tomorrow.
“It’s good to see someone like Jordan who’s genuinely been brought up in Scotland and who wants to play for Scotland. I am glad he is playing for Scotland but I don’t think the Under-21s should have released him for this game,” Collins quipped. “I think they should have kept him.”
At 28, Collins may have missed the boat in terms of winning a full Scotland cap of his own. However, the former Leeds United and Sunderland defender is no stranger to the big stage.
He started his career with Scottish club Queens Park, who play their home games at Hampden, and travelled to Wembley as a Scotland supporter when they beat England 1-0 in November 1999.
“I played at Hampden plenty of times and there was normally only 500 people there,” he laughed. “If the ball got booted into the stand, it took two minutes to get it back. And if you were having a bad game, you could hear someone shouting at you. It echoed around the whole stadium. It’s easier playing in front of 40,000 than 500, I can tell you.”
The Blades finished nine points clear of Huddersfield in the League One table this season and only dropped out of the top two in the last few games.
Only five years ago, the Blades were playing Premier League football and Collins hopes a victory tomorrow can be a springboard for a subsequent return to the top flight.
“Promotion to the Championship is just one step for this club,” he said. “The Premiership is very competitive but I think both Sheffield clubs could add something to it. Hopefully, we can take one step forward this weekend but not stop there. The long-term aim is to get challenging and back into the Premiership. When you are taking 35,000 fans to Wembley, it shows how big a club we are.”
Collins won promotion to the Championship with Leeds two years ago under Simon Grayson, who he stills refers to as ‘gaffer’.
Grayson is now, of course, the Town manager and will be looking for his third promotion from League One after previous success in the play-offs with Blackpool.
“There is absolutely no problem between me, the gaffer, and his backroom staff,” stressed Collins. “It was my decision to leave. I could have stayed at Leeds and played but I felt the way circumstances were, the best option would be to join Sheffield United. That’s football. We have moved on and we are both at good clubs.
“He took me to a huge club at a time where things were not going the way I planned at Preston. He took me and gave me a lot of confidence again. It was great to work with him and be part of a succesful moment in Leeds’s history.
“His record speaks for itself in terms of getting teams out of League One. He did a reasonably good job at Leeds and probably feels he should have been in the play-offs last year when they finished seventh in a strong Championship.
“Now he has got a chance of extending his record by getting Huddersfield promoted but, hopefully, our manager (Danny Wilson) comes out on top.”
The Blades are seeking a third consecutive clean sheet tomorrow after beating Stevenage 1-0 on aggregate over two legs of the semi-final.
“It is up to us to be solid again but we defend as a team,” stressed Collins. “Against Stevenage, the strikers and the midfielders have to take a lot of credit for the clean sheets. They did a very good job.
“The defenders help in attack too. Matty Lowton has been very important in that sense. It’s a whole balance. If we are organised – as we have been all season – we will give ourselves the best chance.”
The Blades are still sweating over the fitness of midfielder Kevin McDonald (hamstring) and striker Richard Cresswell (eye).